By Amy Locke, MD, FAAFP
I think a lot about food. I think about what to make, where to go to get a great meal, and who might enjoy it with me. I get pleasure from looking through cookbooks and making shopping lists. The first thing I do when I am traveling is head to the grocery store. It makes me feel at home. I often travel with my own knives and occasionally a cutting board. I have been accused more than once of being picky when it comes to food. My husband rolls his eyes as I delve into the nuances of more or less lemon, or what spice is missing, or could that tea have been steeped in hotter water. But, at the end of the day, we both appreciate a home cooked meal with family.
It is a lucky person that can blend work and pleasure into a career, and I have been lucky. I spend my evenings in the kitchen cooking while helping with homework and my days helping people understand how to live a healthier lifestyle. Some days that is one on one with patients, other days it is teaching an interdisciplinary Culinary Medicine course, designing group programing for patients, or addressing provider wellness and resilience.
Physicians are often accused of caring only about what medications or procedures might be most appropriate for a patient rather than considering the health habits that are contributing to an illness or symptom. More often than not, we are training our workforce to focus on just that, treatments for illnesses that have already developed. There is, however, a groundswell of enthusiasm growing among physicians and other health care professionals to step back and look at the big picture. How did we get to this place of chronic disease? What can we do to prevent it and even reverse it?
Lifestyle and culinary medicine courses and curricula are popping up across the country. Integrative Medicine and Health, which has long looked at lifestyle as the foundation of prevention and treatment, is gaining acceptance and momentum. It is a great time to be a physician and to see the tide turn towards looking at causes rather than symptom control with pharmaceuticals.
We have the ability to advocate for this shift in focus in many realms. We can teach our trainees how to cook so that when they talk with patients, they have a foundation to their advice. We can advocate for our health plans to cover lifestyle services such as fitness evaluations and dietician counseling. We can walk the walk in our own facilities. A recent conversation with a hospital cafeteria chef provided this insight when reviewing a survey of food offerings: “People say they want healthy food in the cafeteria, but they buy fries.” What if health care facilities didn’t sell fries? Or candy? Or sweet beverages? What if they cost more?
Food is a necessary and enjoyable part of our lives. Yet it can be contentious and shaming. We have the opportunity to embrace the enjoyment part, to help people make choices that bring them joy and health. One way to begin is to bring that sense of pleasure into our own life and then share our enthusiasm with others.
Dr. Amy Locke is an integrative family physician and Associate Professor at the University of Utah in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine and the Office of Wellness and Integrative Health. She directs the Health Sciences Culinary Medicine course and co-directs the Resiliency Center at the University of Utah. She is also an adjunct faculty in the Department of Family Medicine and in the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the University of Michigan Medical School.